Royal birthdays should be celebrated as a day of togetherness and as a reiteration of one’s commitment towards one’s country. The irreversible journey that we have undertaken in democracy will keep us divided more and more. It is only in the institution of monarchy that we will be united towards a common dream, goal and aspiration.
My father was one of Bhutan’s first drivers. In fact he had the License No. 4. He was a royal chauffeur for few years before he was sent to the newly established Bhutan Government Transport Service (BGTS) in 1966. In the seventies I spent my childhood school holidays taking free rides with him.
Since his black-coloured BGTS truck was one of the very few vehicles plying on the “highway” (sometimes the only vehicle on the road that day), my father would stop for everyone seeking a ride. After a while the truck would be brimming beyond its capacity that some passengers would protest, “There is no space, driver sahib. Don’t stop!” My father would pull his head out of the driver’s cabin and shout back, “Let them on board, as we move ahead you will all fit in.”
No one dare challenge him. BGTS drivers were very powerful guys those days. As the new entrants climbed on board and before they could settle in properly my father would mischievously zoom off. People would tumble on each other. There would be laughter. There would be laments. There were screams. Someone has his legs trapped while another has lost his slippers. There would also be some discussions over some extra spaces someone is occupying. Everyone would cooperate and slowly things would settle down. The journey would continue.
The rides were long and hazardous. The roads were narrow and slippery. Sometimes landslides and boulders would have blocked the way. Men would jump out and start clearing them with bare hands. While they worked, women would pull out the lunch packs and ara and zow. An ad hoc picnic would be spread on the road itself. Everyone shared or would be invited to eat and drink. The journey would resume. The progress was always slow. Night fell midway into the journey. It was scary. My father would be more focused. To his aid, someone would start chanting a prayer. Everyone would join in. We always got to the end of the journey. Safe and sound, as a cliché goes.
On 5th February we celebrated the first anniversary of the birth of HRH Gyalsay. I did onboard Bhutan Airlines bound for Bangkok. There was the inflight announcement wishing him “Happy Birthday”. Cakes were served. But for me such days, and birthdays in general, are also a time for serious reflection.
Our country has embarked on a journey – the journey of democracy. Notwithstanding the challenges, the ride has been relatively smooth so far. Other countries have gone through much rougher times.
Still, living abroad these days (I am doing my doctoral studies in Macau), I do catch up with my friends when I am back to Thimphu. Between some bar talks here and some whispers there, I am often confronted with laments and lauds, hopes and fear, screams and applauses.
The first defamation suit against a journalist has been withdrawn. A puzzling sigh of relief can be felt in the industry. Its impact will be there for long – or forever. A feature film has been denied certification. Those affected are screaming against invasion into their creativity and against curtailment to the freedom of expression. Some people claim that their feet have been stamped while others feel that their legs are trapped. Reactions are, far too often, knee-jerk.
For me, we are all going through a process – and a steep learning curve. As the truck of our democracy safely negotiate the muddy bends and shake a bit, everyone will ultimately find a space. However, we should never stop dreaming or working towards a better future or system – or prevent or scorn at someone who is doing that. No system is perfect and no laws are cast on stones. We should accept that they are created by imperfect human beings. There will always be room for improvement.
The mass is getting more vocal. New technological platforms are providing unlimited access to information and news to everyone. The so-called digital divide is now a passé. Even my illiterate sister is heavily on WeChat. Information is not a monopoly of the few. New political parties are in the offing. The overall progress is slow – but we are progressing nevertheless. The old power centres, such as the bureaucracy, are figuring out where they stand in the new era. Others who are too old to climb on to the truck will be left behind.
Where we really need to stop is to claim that the grass is green only on the other side. We can take inspirations and best practices from others. I don’t argue with that. But scrolling through facebook pictures of our compatriots standing in front of high-rise buildings and exotic shopping malls in foreign lands, many of us seem to fantasize that everything is messy in Bhutan while it is perfect ‘out there’. We give up too easily. Or we resign to any issue with a popular phrase, pha lay pha (meaning ‘out there in a foreign land’). We say (and some even claim without having been anywhere) that pha lay pha ghi people are better and brighter; and that, out there, the system is just and perfect and that societies are fair and equal. Maybe, in terms of public infrastructure, things are more convenient in some developed countries. But as a saying goes, the world is a just place and life is not fair anywhere. Out there, there are more countries with bad services and systems than there are with good ones. There are challenges everywhere. But, most importantly, in terms of people and sense of humanity, I feel, it is still a blessing to be a Bhutanese. I say, “still”, because we are also changing.
Democracy comes with more freedom and choices but also with more challenges and responsibilities. It is slippery, at times. In the confusions and confrontations brought about by the changing times, what we, as Bhutanese from all walks of life, must always remember is that We. Are. In. This. Together.
We are in the same truck – part of the same process. There is no ‘us’ or ‘they’. And no one should feel indispensable, indestructible or immortal. Personal interests or egos should not override our sacred duties or official positions.
If there are boulders blocking our system, we remove them. If there are disagreements we discuss and solve them. If we have extra resources we share. If there are criticisms we accept. If people are screaming we listen. We should never forget that on either side of the so-called rules, policies, systems and fancy designations, we have real human beings with faces and families. That’s why GNH is a human-centric development and governance approach.
And whatever happens, remember we have the good fortune of our Golden Throne that has steered us safely along the bumpy and winding road from the not-so-easy historical past. It is an institution that continues to work selflessly for the people. Where in the world do people have such luxury?
Therefore, as we come together to celebrate the first birth anniversary of our Gyalsay, who is a manifestation of our collective moelam, we can make the occasion more meaningful by inner introspection rather than outer displays of posters and advertisements. We can remind ourselves of who we are as people, reflect on how we are doing as a nation and work together towards our common destination as a country. This way our Gyalsay, and our children, will inherit a stronger Bhutan.
This is more than a celebration. It is our sacred duty as citizens.